By Alex Kozora
A Pittsburgh Steelers player by player recap, grouped by position, reviewing the 2013 season. Today, a look at the Steelers’ backfield.
Le’Veon Bell: Oh what could have been. Had a foot injury not caused Bell to miss time in the preseason and the first three weeks of the year, he would have been a 1,000 yard rusher and had double-digit touchdowns. Perhaps the Steelers don’t start 4-4. Maybe they go 2-2. Maybe I’m doing playoff recaps instead of end of the year reviews.
On the surface, the 3.5 average doesn’t look pretty. But a lot of that was playing behind a line that was struggling to get the engine started. He finished the last five weeks with a lot of “fours”. Averaged over four yards per carry four times, and found the end zone the same number.
Bell’s positives were numerous. A workhorse back, the former Spartan averaged nearly 19 carries per game. A three down player who caught 45 passes and was trusted enough to be often used in pass protection. A tough runner capable of lowering his shoulders and gaining extra yards. A surprising athlete with quick feet and the occasional “did that just happen” hurdle. His signature run of the year came on a 25 yard run topped with a hurdle against the Green Bay Packers.
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t a fan of Bell after the draft. He didn’t appear to have good vision as a back and too frequently bounced runs to the outside. But I’ll eat crow as Bell rarely missed holes and routinely planted to get upfield and run downhill.
He also shows the ability to press a hole to get the linebacker to committ and then cutback. Prime example against the Baltimore Ravens, making veteran Daryl Smith (#51) look silly.
Although he was often used in pass protection as noted above, there is still to be work to be done in that area. Needs to consistently square up his defender instead of cutting or leading with his shoulder as he did in these two instances, the former coming in Week 17.
Other issues included drops (6th in league drop percentage for running backs with 20+ targets) though at times, the team seemed to force feed Bell the ball. Never understood the team’s infatuation with using him on wheel routes that rarely connected. Bell also lacks home run speed with the numbers backing it up. He only had one run over 25 yards. Of course, it is not a major issue nor a requirement.
By the end, he was an obvious choice for the team’ rookie of the year. And an obvious choice as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ next feature back.
Felix Jones: Acquired in a training camp deal for Adrian Robinson, Jones finished the season with 184 yards rushing and caught nine passes for 63 yards. Most thought his career was all but finished after the run-heavy Chip Kelly didn’t want him but the former first round pick carved out a niche with the team as a return man, averaging 22 yards per kick return.
In the second half of the year, he rarely saw the ball aside from getting work in the team’s two minute offense at the end of the half. He occasionally flashed a burst but his runs were more a product of big running lanes opened up because of the formation and not ability.
Jones will hit free agency and it seems unlikely he will be retained.
Jonathan Dwyer: What a maddingly frustrating player. Failing to take advantage of his opportunity in 2012, Dwyer rumbled to just 623 yards in 13 games, finding the end zone twice. Habitually struggling with his weight, it wasn’t even a certainty Dwyer would break camp with the team. After injuries to Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling, Dwyer made the squad and carved out a role as a short-yardage back.
An area he did excel in. And to his credit, Dwyer ran hard in 2013. He flashed the talent he’s had since coming out of Georgia Tech. He logged time on special teams, serving as the upback for most kick returns, playing on the punt return team, and seeing some time running down kicks.
Unfortunately, this appears to be his ceiling. He’ll never be a feature back. His vision is still among the worst around and at this point, does not seem to be correctable. He showed it in the preseason against the Washington Redskins
all the way to Week 17, bouncing this run instead of hitting the “B” gap.
And each offseason, you hold your breath and hope he shows up motivated and in shape. Had Howling and Bell not gotten hurt, I strongly believe he would not be with the team.
Dwyer is a free agent but could be brought back on a small deal because he does have a role and gives you special teams ability. Should that happen, he will not be guaranteed a spot and will face competition in camp.
Will Johnson: He was utilized less than what he probably should have been. With the Steelers passing as much as they did and the strong play from Jerricho Cotchery, the team operated out of 11 personnel most of the time, leaving few snaps for a fullback. His touches nearly dropped in half from 15 in 2012 to 8 this past year.
Still a useful bit player, he’s a solid blocker and though an afterthought out of the backfield, came up with some big catches (go ahead TD vs Detroit, 4th down conversion against Green Bay). Boot action into the flats (often a spot route with curl/corner combination) is a “go to” for Todd Haley in crucial situations.
Johnson’s contributions mostly stem from his special teams work, usually running as R2 on kickoffs and seeing time on punt returns. He is the new age fullback. A big man that can move.
He is signed for 570K in 2014 and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2015.
LaRod Stephens-Howling: Hyphen tore his ACL in Week 1, spending the rest of the year on injured reserve. Still just 27 by the time next season begins and a player that never had a heavy workload, he should be able to come back.
A scat back that is capable of wearing many hats, it would not be surprising to see the team offer him a cheap deal in the offseason. The Steelers don’t want to head into the draft with just one running back on the roster.
Alvester Alexander: Alexander spent the season on the practice squad and received a futures contract from the team. He’ll try to earn his way back on the practice squad in 2014.
Next Up: Wide Receivers